After another school year that was disrupted by the pandemic, organizers of greatly expanded summer learning opportunities have made significant investments to ensure they are available to all students.
While there have been some successes, these programs still face many of the same problems that educators have faced since the pandemic. There has been inconsistency in attendance, families have lost interest and COVID-19 has many people who are reluctant to allow students to learn in person.
Education professionals have also had to overcome persistent barriers in summer program access for families who have to juggle child care and work, and are limited in transportation access.
Halley Potter, a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation and a researcher on educational inequity, said that “We’re starting with a really uneven playing field.” “School districts have a lot to do. Community organizations run these programs too, to help with that.”
The summer programs offered by schools and community groups are powered by an infusion of private and public funding — including billions of dollars in federal stimulus money — to help students catch up on learning. Schools targeted students who were identified as having high learning needs. This included students in low-income neighborhoods or with poor grades in core classes.
The Penasco Independent Schools District, which has approximately 350 students in New Mexico and announced a summer program, the demand was so great that the district had to double the number.
However, 85 of those children would not have been able to attend without district-provided transportation services.
Penasco’s pervasive intergenerational poverty led to school districts adopting the “community schools” model. This provides services such as counseling, transportation, and other resources that ensure participation in school programs.
Michael Noll, director of community schools, said that some rural families don’t have a car. Some people who do own a car have times when they cannot afford gas. Others are often trying to balance work and childcare, and finding it difficult to take care of their children.
Three buses are used to transport the 50 children. Carmen Lyn Romero, a social worker in the Rocky Mountains, lives on a narrow dirt road that is too narrow to accommodate a school bus.
Romero, who balanced taking care of her five children with serving nearby tribal reservation Picuris Pueblo, relied on an SUV the district sent to pick up her children.
“The school was so accommodating to me and my children, picking them up and dropping them off. Romero, 28, said that she couldn’t do it.
Even before the pandemic, students’ summer experiences divided heavily along socioeconomic lines. Potter stated that students of middle and upper classes typically have more summer learning opportunities and are more likely access to summer enrichment.
Potter stated that low-income students are more likely to experience learning loss. Many families struggle to find affordable summer enrichment programs that meet their needs. The demand for these seats can easily exceed the supply.
This year, there was a dramatic increase in the number of seats offered by school districts. Targeted outreach policies were implemented to help students with high needs get into these slots.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools typically does not host a summer session, but offered more than 30,000 slots this year to any student interested and saw an average daily attendance of around 15,000.
Any student can sign up for a seat. However, the district identified students with Ds or Fs from core classes, students who live in unstable housing or are chronically absent, as well as students with special needs. Individual outreach includes home visits and phone calls to families to inform them about registration.
Nearly 20,000 children were able to sign up for a summer slot, out of 65,000 students who were considered at-risk. On average, the program attracted around 10,000 students who were at-risk each day.
Tangela Williams, who oversees summer programming, stated that attendance wasn’t mandatory and some students only came on specific days or started in the middle of the 24-day program. Some parents claimed they didn’t want to be involved, but staff members reached out to each family in the event that a student missed more than three days. This was to ensure that any student who wanted to return to school had the support and assistance needed.
Williams stated that there were limitations to what can be done but she hoped the experience would help students transition back to in-person learning.
Williams stated that a percentage of the summer camp kids were full-remote students during the school year. “Having them back in school for the summer helps to re-acclimate them to school with new socialization and processes that will be used with their peers.”
Communities have not all felt the same impact from extended school closings and the coronavirus epidemic. Black and Latino families were more likely than other groups to become sick from the virus. They also tended to enroll their children in remote education at higher rates, even though districts offered more in-person options.
Kendra Banks, chief of arts & learning academies at Young Audiences of Maryland, stated that it was essential to reengage students who were largely disconnected from the school system. She partnered with Baltimore City Schools in order to offer arts-integrated educational camps.
Banks stated that some parents were still reluctant to send their children to in-person programs because of the coronavirus. Banks stated that the program provided weekly testing and guided parents through all safety protocols to help them feel more secure.
Banks stated that they went beyond the requirements to ensure that the sites were safe. They also assured them that they will follow the proper protocols. It was having conversations and calling each family to answer any questions.
Districts used the funding boost to expand the range of programs they could offer. Aaron Philip Dworkin is the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. He stated that, aside from barriers to access, inequalities can also be caused by the high cost of intensive programs such as residential experiences at university campuses.
These programs are great for students who want to learn new things and have college experiences, but they can be difficult to access for low-income families.
Dworkin stated, “It shouldn’t be that kids with the least resources now have the most engaging types of programs.”
Students in San Diego Unified School District spent half of their day in class and half in summer camp-style programming, which was provided by a variety of non-profit organizations.
Andrew Sharp, chief public information officer for the district, stated that these partnerships made it possible to offer experiences such as surfing, flying a drone, and learning about wildlife conservation to families who otherwise would not be able afford similar summer programs.
Sharp stated that after a difficult year, he wanted students to find joy in reconnecting with peers and academics.
Sharp stated, “We wanted to place the emphasis on programs for some of our historically poor communities.” Sharp stated, “And at the very same time, it was our goal to give kids the best summer of all their lives.”